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2009 Mini Cooper
2009 Mini Cooper

James Hinchcliffe

Why the Mini makes me smile Add to ...

Okay, you got me: Last week I wrote an article on what I thought was the best road car out there today. As much as we all wish we lived in a world where money was no object, the price tag of my top car - although a bargain at around $160,000 compared to others in its league - puts it out of reach for a large majority of the population.

Despite the Audi R8 being a car I wish everyone could enjoy, I'm glad that we don't live in a world where everybody has one. If money were no object, one would be too busy taking first-class flights to five-star hotels in Bali for weeks on end to be able to spend an adequate amount of time at home revelling in the near spiritual experience that driving an R8 creates. We wouldn't want to sell it short, now, would we?

So as long as the chances of owning an R8 are roughly that of winning the lottery, we are resigned to living vicariously through the written word and first-hand accounts of others. But that doesn't mean we can't have our own fun, now does it?

A reader kindly put forth the challenge for me to find a car that ignites a fire in your soul without burning a hole in your pocket. In doing a little research I was happy to find many cars that could excite the sensed and still meet our number one criteria. As tough as it was to narrow down, I think that I have found the car that delivers great bang for your buck.

Enter the Mini Cooper S. This little creation hails from England. (Or Germany - depends who you ask.) I know what you're thinking: "But I'm not a British flower child." You don't have to be to drive a Mini any more.

At $29,900 base price, this car just clocks in to the under-30-grand category. This is a tough class to choose a best in, because there are many formidable options from various manufacturers. However, if you lend me a few minutes, I will show you why I think this car takes the cake.

First off let's take a look at, well, the looks! I love the shape of this car. It has a smooth look, not too angular, but at the same time it isn't soft and passive. From some angles it looks like it's suited to a quick trip to the corner store and from others it looks like it's about to take part in a German touring car race.

On top of that, it has a unique shape (of course, the Pontiac Aztek was a unique shape too, but the Mini isn't unique in a trigger-the-gag-reflex kind of way). You can never mistake a Mini for something else. It is noticeable without being ostentatious.

We have established that it checks the aesthetic boxes, so now let's get practical.

The first thought is that it's small. Well, yes and no. While it doesn't have the cargo capacity of a Hummer H2, the rectangular roof line creates a surprising amount of space inside. Granted, the back seats aren't suited for the average NBA player, but it's not as if they're unusable. Perhaps their best feature is that they fold down to create the trunk space that one would expect from a hatch back. You can easily fit a few golf bags or a few pairs of skis.

The quality of the interior - or of the whole car for that matter - is superb. This is due in large part to the fact that it's made by BMW. In a lot of ways, this car is a little 3-Series. Comfortable seats, great controls and above par fit and finish make you feel like you're sitting in something that should be somewhere in the $50,000 bracket. I always believe you can tell a lot about a car based on the sound it makes when you close the door. Shut the Mini's door and it screams "built by Germans".

Another important question: How does it drive? Well, the engineering behind this car is so good - with the wheels close to the corners of the car, the handling is like that of a big go-kart. In fact, it beats Ferraris on a slalom course! It is so responsive and quick that it really makes you feel like you can do anything in this car. And the peppy super-charged 'S' version has enough power to pull your cheeks back under acceleration and force you to smile. You really have no say in the matter.

Despite its low ride height, the ride is very comfortable and it's even great in the winter. The excellent handling partnered with the front-engine, front-wheel drive combo translates to something that is safe and sturdy in the worst winters Canada can throw at it. (As long as the road is ploughed, that is.)

Top that off with a series of options such as flags on the roof, racing stripes or rally-inspired head lights and you have a car you can customize to your taste. In an age where being unique is the thing, these options really make you feel like the car is an extension of your personality.

In the Mini Cooper S, you have a well-built car that looks sharp, drives like a dream and can be tailored to your creative vision, all for under $30,000. I don't see how you can lose.

Toronto-based James Hinchcliffe is a racing driver in the IndyCar Lights series.


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